The flight today was a real throwback. Narita was–surprise!–congested, so we circled a good twenty minutes before getting clearance to land. They’d warned us it was going to be turbulent, and it was. There weren’t any scary drops or bone-jarring shakes; the plane just kind of swayed and swished its way down. It was like a water slide. A nauseating water slide. I could feel myself turning green (which at least coordinated with my light-purple sweater). The girl next to me threw up. I think it had been a good decade or so since I’d seen someone use a barf bag or been on a plane that had to circle before landing. Whether that’s because I’m lucky or because technology and know-how have improved steadily, I don’t know.
Our landing was not like the one described in the introduction to Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl, which I picked up to read on the flight (Virginia Postrel’s been posting about it) and enjoyed immensely. Well, actually, I’m not the whole way through yet: the book isn’t what you’d call dense, but if you’re interested in the ways individual decision-making adds up to create society, there’s a fact or stat in just about every paragraph that sends your imagination shooting off in several suggestive directions. Bruegmann had me by approximately paragraph two:
When the plane banks sharply to the left about an hour and a half into the flight from Chicago, I know that we are starting our long descent into New York’s LaGuardia airport. Looking down, I can see long, wooded ridges running diagnoaly from the southwest to the northeast, alternating with wide stream valleys between them. This part of Western New Jersey is beautiful from the air. In summer the deep green of the oaks and maples on the ridge tops forms a striking contrast with the lighter greens that make up the patchwork quilt of fields in the valleys. At first glance, this landscape of cropland, farmhouses, roads, and streams seems timeless, little changed over the centuries.
It is difficult, at least at first glance, to imagine what all the people living in these houses do, where they work, shop, and play since there are not office buildings, shopping centers, or movie theaters in sight. It is possible that some of them work from their home, relying heavily on the phone, Internet, and express delivery services to keep them connected to the urban world, and it is possible that others drive to jobs in small towns nearby. The substantial number of houses, however, suggests that the majority must commute some distance to work, perhaps to nearby corporate centers tucked discreetly into the rolling hills or, further afield, to large business centers along highways like the Route 1 strip near Princeton. Others probably make their way daily into downtown Trenton or Center City Philadelphia, twenty and forty miles to the southwest, respectively, or into downtown New Brunswick, Newark, or even Manhattan, thirty, forty, and sixty miles, respectively, to the northeast. In virtually every case, however, no matter how rural the view from the living room window, these residents are more closely tied economically and socially to the urban world than they are to the apparently rural one they can see out their windows.
And, Bruegmann implies, that’s okay. People make the trade-offs they need to maximize what’s most important to them, and often that means they have to spend some non-negligible time commuting, and they have to do it by car. You would think that such a non-judgmental point of view wouldn’t be so jarring, but after years of reading about how people need to be pistol-whipped by zoning boards and transport authorities into living on top of each other and not driving, it’s nice to see. Bruegmann’s historical overview of urban development, which indicates that “sprawl” is far from a new phenomenon, was fascinating, too.
Of course, this was all amusing to think about as the Narita Express barreled along toward central Tokyo; within a few minutes, I was moving through shoals of evening rush-hour commuters at Shibuya Station, then waiting in a long taxi line, then finally collapsing with a sigh on the bed in my third floor apartment. I love this life, but I recognize that most other people are not bookish, childless city types. Bruegmann seems to be doing a good job of arguing that the main reasons so many commentators want them to live as if they were are cultural rather than conservationist. I’m looking forward to finishing the book, assuming I ever get back to a normal sleep schedule. I’ll be damned if I can tell you what time my body thinks it is right now.
Added on 24 December: Darn–I used to know a Peter Bergmann, so without thinking I changed the author of the book’s name. It’s fixed now.